During Diwali week, when many Indian athletes were sharing festive wishes on their social media, one message that stood out was an identical tweet posted by several prominent Indian sportswomen thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi for starting a campaign called Bharat Ki Laxmi to celebrate women’s achievements.
The athletes who tweeted the message included badminton players Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, boxers Mary Kom, Nikhat Zareen and Lovlina Borgohain, wrestler Pooja Dhanda, table tennis player Manika Batra and shooter Elavenil Valarivan.
Dhanda even had the word “Text” at the start of her tweet, suggesting that the message had been copy-pasted from another source.
Most of these tweets also mentioned Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju, who had tweeted a video highlighting the feats of Indian female athletes.
As image of these cloned tweets went viral, it seemed that the plan to generate good press for Modi and Rijiju had backfired.
The tweets generated amusement and ire online, as many social media users pointed out that this seemed like an obvious attempt at using sportspeople to push government propaganda.
After the social media response, Mary Kom and Pooja Dhanda deleted their tweets, as did Moudgil.
How did it happen
People familiar with the operation told Scroll.in that the template message originated at the highest levels of government, given the seniority of the ministers whose names were mentioned in the tweets.
The message was sent to several athletes who are part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme, a sports ministry programme to provide financial assistance to potential medal winners at the quadrennial event.
These people sent Scroll.in a screenshot of the message fowarded to the athletes. It asked athletes to share Rijiju’s tweet on Bharat ki Laxmi and forwarded them the exact text that needed to be tweeted out as well. They were also asked to share their tweet with the official.
While most of the sportswomen seemingly agreed and put up the message without much consideration, there are some who reframed the text. A few others didn’t put it up at all.
Among the athletes who posted about the Bharat ki Laxmi initiative using different text were shooter Anjum Moudgil and wrestler Geeta Phogat.
Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu and runner Hima Das also made a reference to the initiative in their tweets about an event to felicitate Das, Chanu and Rakhi Haldar at the National Institute of Sport in Patiala on October 26.
Shooter Apurvi Chandela retweeted a Sports Authority of India tweet about the programme.
This is not the first time that the social media accounts of Indian athletes have featured messages for campaigns started by the government. The Fit India Movement, a campaign launched by PM Modi to encourage Indians to take up exercise and sports for a healthy lifestyle, was widely praised by athletes on social media. Many sportspersons shared videos of their training regimes and took part in the Fit India Plog Run, an initiative of the Sports Ministry on Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.
Plogging – a combination of jogging with picking up litter – included people running while cleaning up the place and athletes like wrestler Bajrang Punia, shooters Abhishek Verma and Sanjeev Rajput and hepthathlete Swapna Burman participated in it.
As athletes, fitness is a huge part of their daily routine so asking them to promote a campaign like this did not seem awkward. With the reach they can have, this seemed like a good way to spread the message to younger people. Saina Nehwal, for instance has 8.4 million followers on Twitter while Mary Kom has 1.4 million.
But the Bharat ki Laxmi copy-paste messages suggested that this was action meant to appease those in power rather than express genuine gratitude.
Whose voice is it anyway?
Increasingly, top athletes employ sports management agencies not only to help them negotiate better commercial deals but also to help them with their social media strategies.
On social media, some athletes are open about their political leanings, others prefer to keep it neutral. Some promote brands and sponsors through a tweet while some others tweet about government initiatives, with the requisite hashtags.
Managers of sportspeople pointed out at there is huge money to be gained through social media posts. “It works to the athletes advantages to be on social media, commercially,” said a member of a player management agency. “It increases their reach, which helps when brands want them to endorse products.”
Some sports managers suggest topics to their clients that are worth tweeting about or to send public birthday messages to influential people, such as Modi or cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.
Requests from the government to participate in campaigns such as the Bharat ki Laxmi initiative are not always handled by these agencies, and in this case came to the athletes directly.
People on the sport scene say that it can be difficult for athletes to refuse requests from government officials to participate in campaigns like this. Most athletes who participate in Olympic sports get some sort of support and funding from the government. They do not raise much from personal sponsorship efforts, with the exceptions being PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal.
They are reliant on the government for training facilities as well as funds to participate in tournaments. If they start impressing at the international level then they are brought under the Target Olympic Podium Scheme.
Under TOPS, the selected athletes can seek assistance in these areas:
(a) Customised training under reputed coaches at institutes with world-class facilities.
(b) Participation in international competitions.
(c) To buy equipment.
(d) Services of support staff/personnel like physical trainers, sports psychologisst, mental trainers, physiotherapists and so on.
(e) Other support specific to the sport discipline.
(f) Out-of-pocket allowance of Rs. 50,000 per month to the athletes as an incentive.
Teams for Olympic events are sent by the national associations for each sport. Athletes must ensure that they do not get on the wrong side of the officials in the sports federations. Federations, on the other hand, don’t want to get on the wrong side of the ministry as the Sports Authority of India pays the salaries of all the foreign coaches in the country.
Turning down requests to tweet government message runs the risk of angering officials. Direct instructions from an organisation with which athletes are in a constant working relationship with can be hard to ignore – especially if those instructions involve the sports minister or the prime minister.
As some have noted, no woman cricketers tweeted about Bharat ki Laxmi, nor did any of the hockey players. Participants in these sports do not qualify for the Target Olympic Podium Scheme.